This is Part 1 of a series looking at the people and scenery along the route of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the town of Mayflower, Ark. Read Part 2.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—The oil that erupted in the town of Mayflower back in March began its trip in an Illinois hamlet named Patoka, 90 minutes east of St. Louis. It shot down ExxonMobil's 20-inch Pegasus pipeline, under farms and forests, over the Mississippi River via a state highway bridge, through the Missouri Ozarks, across the Arkansas state line and, a few miles later, near the workplace of one Glenda Jones, whom you can find on a summer Saturday at her bar job, watching the Cardinals thump the Cubs.
The other bartender here at the Rolling Hills Country Club in the town of Pocahontas is named Brenda, so anyone visiting the golf course in far Northeast Arkansas is bound to meet one of the Endas, as they're known around the club. At 5 p.m. it's quiet in the 10-table lounge but for a Fox broadcaster making Jones's day: "Molina deep ... back to the wall ... it's gone!" Jones, the proud Enda and part-time house cleaner who refers to the Cardinals as "we," hollers, "Yes, finally!"
Ask Jones about Pocahontas, and she's quick to tout its famous five rivers (the Spring, the Black, the Current, the Fourche, the Eleven Point). And the people are sure friendly. "Course they are," she says. "We're in the middle of the Bible Belt. Know what I mean? Everybody's nice here." If one thing gives her pause about this area, it might be the Pegasus. It runs right under her yard, and she worries about it rusting. "Stuff like that only lasts so long," she says.
The Pegasus spill surprised people in Mayflower, in part because many of them had no idea they were living atop an oil superhighway. So we got to wondering: Where else does the Pegasus go? To find out, we traced its path using maps publicly available from the federal agency that regulates pipelines, the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). We got precise with Google Earth, following the pipeline's easement — the broad, bald line where trees are kept off the pipe — through the 13 Arkansas counties the Pegasus crosses on its way to Texas. From satellite images, we could see what another break in the Exxon pipeline could threaten: pastures, national forest, rivers, creeks, homes, churches, at least one school, this golf course. It also crosses watersheds for 18 drinking water sources that, together, serve about 770,000 people, a quarter of the state's population.
(Map by Lindsey Millar and Bryan Moats. See a larger version of the map here.)
The 858-mile Pegasus, now well into its seventh decade, has lain unused since March 29, when it burst open in the otherwise pleasant Mayflower neighborhood of Northwoods and belched up 210,000 gallons of heavy crude, by Exxon's tally.
The old pipe spends most of its time underground and is, in any case, just a long, steel conduit, without much character. Ah, but the places it traverses in Arkansas — nearly 300 miles of them! — are full of characters. They've lived with the pipeline underfoot since the 1940s, so long that many have never given it a thought. Many Arkansans we visited — Glenda Jones among them — didn't realize until a reporter called that their local pipeline was the same one that cracked open in Mayflower. And because they're living on top of a pipeline that's now been shown to crack itself open with no apparent provocation, and which a forensic report after the spill cited for manufacturing defects, they get to wonder the obvious.
"If it burst, right here, right now?" asks Derik Fitzgerald, the 0voluble golf course superintendent, at the Endas' bar. "What do you do?"
Fitzgerald knows and respects the Pegasus. Tuesdays and Thursdays Exxon flies a plane over to scope it out. One time Fitzgerald and another man on his crew were fixing an irrigation line maybe 40 feet from the pipe, on Hole 5, when Fitzgerald's friend heard the plane turn. "He said, 'That plane just seen us doing something.' "
They got a friendly visit from an Exxon rep after that one, just to be sure they knew to call in any projects within 200 feet of the pipeline. They also got a visit the time a flood piled branches and logs against the exposed pipeline in a creek. Fitzgerald called, and Exxon was out in a jiffy, yanking timber off the pipe and supervising the burning of the brush.
"I hate to take up for oil companies, I hate it," Fitzgerald says. "But they seem like they're on top of it." When he needs to notify the company that he's working near the pipe, Fitzgerald rings a guy. In his cell phone the contact reads "Billy Exon."